The Church in the West is struggling to hand on the faith to the next generation. Parents themselves may find it difficult to remain in the faith. The abuse crisis has shattered trust in the Church, even while the Church struggles for relevance against the temptations and challenges of secular culture. But the solution cannot be a rigorism that denies the agency of others, including our children. Imparting the faith involves a delicate balance between setting boundaries and encouraging true freedom in Christ, a balance which must always be animated by the joy of the Gospel.
Evangelization is not complicated. It occurs whenever someone preaches the Gospel and spreads the Good News to another. It happens whenever one facilitates an encounter with Christ. Despite this, it is not possible to create a single how-to guide for evangelization, simply because the path to Christ is unique for each person. Each person comes into a relationship with Jesus by hearing about Jesus from someone else, in the midst of their day-to-day activities, and with all their unique pain, suffering, hopes and aspirations. God is pure and simple love, but we experience God in as many ways as we are complicated, varying, and ever-changing.
This was the point made by Father David Paternostro in a recent article for America Magazine. When one insists on a particular path or sets limits on how one comes to the faith, one essentially denies the ability of the Spirit to work in perfect freedom. There is no “silver bullet” for evangelization. We might think we know what is best, but in so doing, we risk replacing God’s will with our own. This echoes Pope Francis’ principle that “time is greater than space.” When we are preoccupied with the present and seek “quick, short-term political gains,” we occupy spaces. It is only over time that we can see the Lord bring forth good fruit from our processes, that aim to, as Pope Francis says quoting Romano Guardini, “foster the development and attainment of a full and authentically meaningful human existence.”
The example of raising children offers us valuable insights into this principle that “time is greater than space.” In particular, we know that what children believe today extends from what they have already learned or “picked up” at a younger age. Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia, “The family is the first school of human values, where we learn the wise use of freedom. Certain inclinations develop in childhood and become so deeply rooted that they remain throughout life, either as attractions to a particular value or a natural repugnance to certain ways of acting.”
Children may not fully understand or appreciate why, for example, they genuflect at Mass, but over time this habit reinforces the truth of the faith that Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. The habits and attitudes that parents instill in their children early in life make it easier for children to embrace the faith as a coherent whole later in life. This is not an attempt to replace God’s will but rather an attempt by parents to make it easier for children to accept God’s will for themselves.
Pope Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia,
Parents are also responsible for shaping the will of their children, fostering good habits and a natural inclination to goodness. This entails presenting certain ways of thinking and acting as desirable and worthwhile, as part of a gradual process of growth.
This is the model that many in the Church use today to spread the faith to adults. We know that we cannot make another person believe, but we also know that if someone is in the habit of doing what religion requires, it will ultimately be easier for them to embrace the faith that animates it. The more choices one makes that are in congruity with a system of belief, the more one is likely to personally accept that belief. And so, with the best of intentions, we offer others our rules, our rubrics, our prayers, our doctrines, and our morality as a path conducive to the development of authentic and life-giving faith.
But again, children offer a cautionary tale. Children will desire a freedom for themselves that often runs up against the standards we set out for them. We set boundaries, which children inevitably cross. We clamp down, and children rebel all the more. As Pope Francis says,
[Moral formation] should… take place inductively, so that children can learn for themselves the importance of certain values, principles and norms, rather than by imposing these as absolute and unquestionable truths
Sadly, this can easily become a vicious cycle: the more we insist on certain behaviors in opposition to our children, the more likely we are to lose sight of the joy of the Gospel and so further distance our children from the faith that could give meaning to their lives. What we as parents begin as a project to pass on the faith may become a project of control and domination over the will of our children. This is the point at which evangelization becomes proselytization, even of our own children. It happens when we become more worried about membership in community and external manifestations of faith than about nurturing faith itself.
Parents can avoid the proselytization of their children by ensuring that the habits and attitudes they are working to instill in their kids are ultimately rooted in loving and joyful witness to the demands of the Gospel—the Gospel that they themselves live with joy and patience gifted to them by the Spirit through faith in Jesus. Parents have a limited window in which to nurture the faith given to children in Baptism, through their very example, through the boundaries they set, through unconditional love, and yes, even punishment. Pope Francis writes,
It is also essential to help children and adolescents to realize that misbehaviour has consequences. They need to be encouraged to put themselves in other people’s shoes and to acknowledge the hurt they have caused. Some punishments—those for aggressive, antisocial conduct—can partially serve this purpose. It is important to train children firmly to ask forgiveness and to repair the harm done to others. As the educational process bears fruit in the growth of personal freedom, children come to appreciate that it was good to grow up in a family and even to put up with the demands that every process of formation makes.
Once we are adults, however, the Church’s methods must be different, since we as a Church can easily become preoccupied with how other people are living out the faith. Of course, it is important to help others learn and grow, to set healthy boundaries, to “never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity.” But as people in the Church inevitably reject various teachings or find it challenging to live by the standards of morality the Church has set for the faithful, those who represent the Church can sometimes advance a “rigorous pastoral care.” Pope Francis warns against this and offers another path: “The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” Without special care given to the unique circumstances of the individual, the experience of “Church,” especially today, can easily become one of domination and control.
There are more practical concerns. The Church in the West, broadly speaking, does not currently offer a very attractive witness to the Gospel. Unlike children who instinctively look up to their parents and emulate our example (whether we want them to or not), adults view the Church today with skepticism. To insist on rules or morality or the rigor of our traditions as the path to deeper faith, even as the Church herself publicly struggles with the impact of sin and the collective moral failures of bishops and priests, seems especially hypocritical and futile. Though the temptation is great, we must avoid the vicious cycle of proselytization. We might feel compelled to do this when we see our Church’s culture diminishing, but such an approach is sure to backfire, just as sure as children rebel against their parents’ demands when they no longer feel like they truly love them or have their best interests at heart.
To proselytize is to insist on the demands of the faith, to create conditions on the faith, to be preoccupied about rolls or membership in a society. Proselytization is inherently selfish because it rejects the way in which God might work in another’s life. Proselytization is the “aggressive attempt to disprove,” in the words of Pope Francis.
In contrast, while it is difficult and while it may cause us much angst, the path forward today must reach people in a way that respects both their freedom and individual complexities. And given that we do not have the standing as a Church today to insist on certain behaviors or attitudes, the only thing we can offer is the Gospel of mercy in its unadulterated form: the kerygma. We must live it out in a way that is radical, potentially painful, and gives clear witness to the faith that gives meaning to our lives.
People outside the Church are increasingly unlikely to choose to join our Church, but we can bring the Church to them. We can walk with them, accompany them, ease their burdens, give them hope, inspire them, and forgive them. These conversations might not go where we were expecting, but we do these things knowing that we are Christ to them, and that it is Christ who will win over their hearts. This is how we best evangelize, and in this age, it appears this is the only path left to us if we truly want to make disciples of all nations.